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Agra, India

Located in the Uttar Pradesh state of northern India, Agra is home to India’s most famous landmark: the Taj Mahal. 

Our journey to Agra began at 4:30am in New Delhi in an auto rickshaw en route to the train station. Despite it being pitch black outside, the city was fully awake and brimming with activity. 

At 6:15am, the Shatabdi Express train left New Delhi promptly. Relieved we made it on time, we dug into the traditional India breakfast provided. We slowly woke up, watching the scenery pass, by during the two-hour journey.

Upon arrival at Agra Cantt train station, a swarm of “helpful” people made a beeline to us (a.k.a. the gringo backpackers.) We smiled and stayed focused on the task at hand: locating the luggage storage. 

After dropping our backpacks off in a questionably secure cloakroom, we grabbed an auto rickshaw from the convenient pre-paid booth and headed to the South Gate. Also known as Sidhi Darwaza (“Symmetrical Gate”), it’s one of three entrances to the Taj Mahal. Even though it’s the least crowded, the scene is still chaotic. Tourists abound, and of course, more “helpful” people. 

As we entered the gate, the Taj Mahal came into focus, framed by the silhouetted archway.

The scene truly takes your breath away.

Once on the other side, we took a few moments to soak up the scene. We took the obligatory photos then began our stroll down the long walkway. Perfectly manicured hedges flank the path. A stunning reflection pool in the center accentuates the beautiful scene.

Beyond its architectural beauty, the Taj Mahal is easily the world’s most iconic symbol of eternal love.

The story goes that in 1632, Mughal emperor Shah Jahan commissioned the building of the Taj Mahal to entomb his late wife Mumtaz Mahal. A local of Agra, Mahal was a princess of Persian nobility and the two shared a passionate and inseparable companionship. Sadly, Mahal died while giving birth to their 14th child. When Jahan himself died, he was also buried here.

Romantic, right?

Like life, things aren’t always what they seem. Turns out Mumtaz Mahal wasn’t Jahan’s only wife, but his third. As in, he had three wives at the same time. And while Mahal was Jahan’s favorite, he also had 5,000 concubines.

Not exactly the virtuous romance the Taj Mahal story portrays.

Additionally, Jahan was a ruthless leader. Building the Taj Mahal wasn’t just a declaration of love, but a force of propaganda. It took 20 years to build and 20,000 workers – all to demonstrate his wealth, opulence and power.

Following in the footsteps of his grandfather (Akbar) and his father (Jahangir), Jahan spurred Islamic revivalist movements. As an Orthodox Muslim, he ordered all newly constructed Hindu temples to be destroyed – even though his mother was Hindu. With a strict adherence to shari’a (a code of Islamic rules), he helped establish Islam as a dominant religion in India.

Yet despite the controversial history, we couldn’t help but find the Taj Mahal incredibly peaceful. We decided to surrender to the romantic version of the story.

Even the bombardment of requests for our photograph didn’t disrupt the peaceful environment. Like our visit to the Red Fort in New Delhi, we found ourselves in a situation where Indian tourists asked for our picture.

To this day, we still don’t fully understand the motivation behind it. Is it because we’re Westerners who they haven’t seen before? Do we seem exotic and different? Or is it simply a novelty to get a picture with strangers from another country?

In any case, it was always surprising (and to some degree, flattering.)

One of our more interesting encounters was with a young man from Iraq. Knowing the United States’ tumultuous history with starting the Iraq War, his interest in talking suprised us. We chatted briefly about politics and how wars fought between countries have nothing to do with the everyday people living there. He was incredibly gracious and the experience reminded us how travel truly has the power to open hearts and minds.

As we continued down the walkway, instead of the Taj Mahal growing larger, it actually appeared to be getting smaller.

It’s still a grand building at 240 feet tall. But this feature is just one of the many optical illusions architects implemented into the design.

Designated a UNESCA World Heritage Site, the Taj Mahal attracts more than 6 million visitors a year. Along with the building’s impeccable symmetry, what stood out to us most was its stark white facade. The marble is so white, it’s almost blinding. Interestingly, the building’s hue changes depending on the time of day.

As we approached the entrance, we joined the line of people outside and removed our shoes – a customary tradition at all sacred Islamic sites. Inside, we found ourselves in an octagonal chamber. At the center, a filigree screen encloses the cenotaphs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan.

Again, the entire ambience felt serene and we continued on with the illusion of the world’s greatest love story.

Back outside, the afternoon sun beat down on us as more crowds arrived. We headed west to visit the lesser known Taj Mahal Mosque. According to Muslim law, any mausoleum must be accompanied by a mosque. After a few more photo ops, as hard as it was to leave such a magically place, we hailed a cycle rickshaw to take us to nearby Agra Fort, just two miles away.

Agra Fort was the main residence of the Mughal emperors until 1638, when the capital moved to Delhi. The grounds are beautiful with notable features like Diwan-i-Aam (“Hall of Public Audience”) and Anguri Bagh, the courtyard’s exquisite garden.

Here, yet another plot twist in the Taj Mahal story comes to life.

In the corner of the courtyard lies the Musamman Burj, an ornate octagonal tower. Yet another tribute that Jahan built for Mahal, it offers a picturesque view of the Taj Mahal across the Yamuna river.

This is where Shah Jahan spent the last years of his life. His own son, Aurangzeb, had usurped the throne and kept him captive here. But he was not alone. His eldest and favorite daughter, Jahanara Begum was with him.

And while we’d like to think the best of this arrangement, French physician and traveller, Francois Bernier, along with several European chroniclers at the time, had their suspicions. They reported that Jahan had an incestual relationship with Jahanara, who, like all Mughal princesses, were forbidden to marry.

It’s interesting the stories we’re told. Whether Bollywood or Hollywood or history itself, what we’re not always given the full truth. Stories don’t always have happy endings. And life isn’t just what’s looks good on the surface, but about all the nitty gritty, ugly details underneath.

The story of the Taj Mahal is a perfect example of just that and the illusion continues today. After all, this masterpiece of architectural brilliance is set in one of the poorest states in India. It’s an important reminder that things aren’t always what they seem.

Admire the beauty, but don’t forget to acknowledge the reality as well.

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